“We had to choose a shade of green that is not similar to the army’s colour,” Governor Ifeanyi Ugwuanyi explained as he showed journalists some vehicles parked across the expansive ground of the Enugu State Government House, last Wednesday. The vehicles sporting leafy backgrounds were part of a large fleet procured to boost the operation of the soon-to-be-inaugurated Forest Guards, a vigilante style unit created by the governor to curb an unusual surge in kidnap seen lately.
The sheer size of the operational vehicles (a total of 360, including 100 utility pickup vans purchased from Innoson Motors and another 260 comprising buses and wagon type saloon cars) underscores the importance the governor attaches to the task of retooling the state’s security framework. These will be distributed to the Nigerian Army, police, Nigerian Security and Civil Defense Corps, Neighbourhood Watch and Forest Guards.
Ugwuanyi had, in the wake of an unusual spike in criminality, approved the immediate engagement of 1,700 forest guards and 5,200 vigilantes from the various wards of the 17 local government areas of the state. Consistent with the community-based approach to crime-fighting that the governor has adopted, this recruitment aims to secure the confidence and support of locals, a support that is crucial; it invariably galvanizes the entire community in the fight against crime, and renders surrounding forested areas an unsafe hideout for kidnap-for-ransom bandits. Such strategy had hitherto yielded information that led to unmasking various tunnels and caves through which criminals escaped with their kidnapped victims, particularly at the Awgu axis. In addition, clearing the long stretch of forested areas that border the busy Enugu – Port Harcourt highway also dealt a serious blow to the surprise element the thick vegetation gave criminals along that axis; today, they can no longer emerge suddenly from its grove to terrorize commuters.
The all-encompassing approach also includes sustained surveillance flights carried out by the Nigerian Air Force over suspected dark spots in the state. This was a fallout of an emergency security meeting Ugwuanyi had convened at the Government House, Enugu, in the wake of some abductions one of which ended fatally. He has also sent an executive bill to the Enugu State House of Assembly seeking a review of the anti-kidnap law to strengthen it, expand its scope and make it an effective crime-fighting tool with commensurate sanctions for kidnap.
This financial burden is mind-boggling but Ugwuanyi has never shied away from footing the bill of whatever is the cost of sustaining the image of Enugu as one of the most secure and peaceful states in the country. He does not do this for praise; he’s rather driven by the conviction that a well-secured state is a necessary precondition for the actualization of any developmental aspiration.
When Assemblymen resume from their current recess, they will also have another bill waiting for their attention, this time for a security trust fund that the governor plans to launch. Once passed and signed into law, funding for security will become institutionalized, attracting corporate support and running as a trust to ease the financial burden of a state government that had hitherto solely funded logistical needs of security agencies, which ordinarily should have been a federal responsibility. This financial burden is mind-boggling but Ugwuanyi has never shied away from footing the bill of whatever is the cost of sustaining the image of Enugu as one of the most secure and peaceful states in the country. He does not do this for praise; he’s rather driven by the conviction that a well-secured state is a necessary precondition for the actualization of any developmental aspiration.
He has good reasons to keep this focus. In his first term, a peaceful environment ensured that Enugu recorded many developmental strides and won many accolades: from being adjudged the third best state to start a business in Nigeria by the World Bank (in its Doing Business in Nigeria 2018 report), to the National Bureau of Statistics’ report listing it among six states with Highest Net Gains in Employment, and its status as one of three Most Financially Stable States in Nigeria (as a study by Financial Derivatives reveal). It also reflects in the recent speedy arrests of suspected killers of two Catholic priests as well as the abductors of a traditional ruler and his wife.
The Governor’s hands-on approach to security management has been demonstrated again and again. In the recent past, he had continued to visit Awgu and Udi forests every other day since early August. This was at the height of the criminality in that axis. He offered security agencies the requisite logistical support, kept everyone tasked with securing the state on their toes, and continues to encourage locals to expose criminals holed up in their various communities. Finally, he has created a security affairs ministry and appointed retired crime fighters like former IGP Ogbonnaya Onovo to strengthen the security of the State. The choice of a former police chief is strategic, particularly given that the forest guards will be carrying out tasks that are complementary to the traditional law enforcement duties of the police. His experience will help instill the needed discipline in the forest guards and eliminate the ugly trend of inter-agency rivalry which usually stifles collaboration and intelligence-sharing, thus creating a room for crime to thrive.
The idea of forest guards was adopted at a meeting of the South-East Governors Forum. Enugu is the first to walk beyond rhetoric to action a move that highlights Ugwuanyi’s courage to do what is necessary to secure his state. Enugu State forest guards will be assuming duty in the coming days even as calm has gradually returned to the state security wise and offers citizens a strong reason for optimism.
Ani, former editor of ThisDay – The Saturday Newspaper, and Saturday Telegraph, lives in Enugu.